Wash Thoroughly Without a Swimsuit

By Jason Wilson
Sunday, March 6, 2005

That afternoon -- a May afternoon, the third day of our trip -- we were driving up the cliffside road toward the town of Siglufjordur, on Iceland's northern coast, roughly 50 miles from the Arctic Circle. Driving was rather difficult because we found ourselves in a blinding spring snowstorm with near-gale winds -- let's just call it a blizzard, for argument's sake.

It was fast approaching a whiteout, and we could not see beyond the hood of our rented SUV. My Icelandic friend Hjalti was driving, and he kept us on the road solely by following the reflective yellow stakes along the sides. When the snow cleared for a moment, my attention was drawn to the left -- where there was no guardrail -- down the cliff to the sea. Huge waves crashed onto the rocks hundreds of feet below. Every so often, our SUV lost traction and skidded to one side or the other.

"We're going to die," I said.

"Well, we are all going to die," Hjalti said with a smirk. "But I don't think so today." He laughed and fiddled with the radio. "Don't worry, I grew up driving roads like this."

The only building we'd seen for many miles had been a bright orange safety hut, the kind the Icelandic government places sporadically in remote areas so people who are stranded by bad weather can find shelter. I was afraid we were soon going to need one ourselves.

Then, suddenly, we saw one of the ubiquitous blue signs with an illustration of a person's head floating above waves. I knew we couldn't have yet reached a town, but we slowed down and saw the word sundlaug -- Icelandic for swimming pool -- and looked up the tiny road to see a boxy, concrete building surrounded by a few farms. "Who'd put a swimming pool out here in the middle of nowhere?" I said.

"The Icelanders, of course," said Hjalti. After all, we'd already visited more than two dozen swimming pools -- many in places just as desolate and remote as this one -- during the 48 hours since we'd left Reykjavik on our six-day circumnavigation of Iceland.

The sign marking this spot read Solgardar, which I couldn't find on my map. Solgardar is not really a town but more like a farming settlement, abutted on one side by mountains and on the other by a cliff that drops off into the sea below. Hjalti pulled the car into the snowy parking lot and said, "Well, get ready to go swimming again."

As we entered the pool area, we were met by a man in a swimsuit named Halldor who, like us, was in his thirties. "I am the schoolteacher for this county," he said. His six students -- all towheaded girls ranging in age from 6 to 12 -- were taking recess outside in the swimming pool while it was snowing. Halldor invited us to join them.

It was time to put back on the now-soaking swimsuit that I'd bought several days ago in Reykjavik. When I bought it, the saleswoman had said to me: "Oh, Speedo! Do you know that Speedo sells the most swimsuits in Iceland? Per capita, of course."

We walked into the changing room and were met with another ubiquitous sign, from the National Center for Hygiene, Food Control and Environmental Health, posted in five languages: "Achtung! Attention! Observe! Every guest is required to wash thoroughly without a swimsuit before entering the pools." Next to the warning was a cartoon illustration of a person, with red marks to show the "trouble areas" of the body that need particular cleaning attention. Icelanders zealously enforce this rule, and most of the swimming pools we'd visited had eagle-eyed monitors making sure that we removed our swimsuits to shower. One monitor, who'd learned I was a journalist, said heatedly to Hjalti in Icelandic: "Make sure he writes in his article that foreigners need to take a shower before they enter our pools. Even though we have these signs posted everywhere, they still don't shower."

No monitors here, but after so many pools, our response was automatic -- suit off, shower on. When I turned on the hot water, the familiar sulfurous rotten-egg smell stung my nostrils. When I expressed my distaste for this odor earlier in our trip, Hjalti had an impressive retort. "Ah," he said, "that is simply the smell of the earth, of real life. It reminds us that this water has bubbled up from miles and miles below ground, that there are forces on this planet, simmering below ground, that are still active, violent, alive."

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